Commentary Magazine


Even in Iowa, Pawlenty’s Ethanol Stand May Be Smart Politics

As Alana notes, Tim Pawlenty’s campaign slogan “A Time for Truth” seeks to contrast the Minnesota governor with more slippery opponents such as Mitt Romney or President Obama. But in announcing his run for the presidency today, he let slip that he’s going to be putting that slogan to an even sterner test: he’s planning on running against ethanol subsidies in Iowa. Although Pawlenty also said that he will talk about social security and Medicare reform in Florida and financial reform on Wall Street, the bit about opposing the ethanol boondoggle in Iowa is what ought to really catch some attention.

Pawlenty would not be the first person to win a presidential nomination despite offending Iowa farmers who profit from the sale of their corn to make the fuel alternative. John McCain flatly opposed ethanol subsidies when he ran unsuccessfully in 2000 but by the time he won the GOP nomination in 2008, he had backed away from that strong stand. Yet even then he barely contested Iowa before winning in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

By contrast, Pawlenty is counting heavily on winning in Iowa where some have already dubbed him the frontrunner. A loss there would severely damage his chances of winning the nomination. So stepping on what is a third-rail issue in Iowa can be portrayed as a true profile in courage for the Minnesotan. But it may not be as self-destructive as some might think. Rather than making him vulnerable, opposing ethanol could be the smartest way to box in his most dangerous opponent in the Hawkeye state: Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.

Although Bachmann is routinely dismissed as too much of an outlier to be a formidable presidential candidate, she does provide Pawlenty with his toughest competition for two key constituencies in Iowa: evangelicals and Tea Party activists. It is not likely that either has a substantial advantage with the former. Both can credibly represent the views of conservative Christians who catapulted Mike Huckabee to a victory in Iowa in 2008. As the putative leader of the Tea Party caucus in Congress Bachmann cedes no ground to any Republican. But by stating his opposition to ethanol subsidies, Pawlenty is setting a trap for Bachmann.

If Bachmann attempts to pander to Iowans on ethanol, she can be easily branded a hypocrite and Tea Party apostate. After all, how can anyone who claims to represent a pure anti-tax and spend position while endorsing what amounts to welfare for people who grow corn? Though Pawlenty might lose some votes because of his ethanol position, he stands to garner applause and credibility among hard core Tea Partiers and other GOP activists. If Bachmann joins him in opposing the subsidy, he is no worse off and will at the very least compete with her for that segment of voters. If she waffles on the issue, then she is cooked not only in Iowa but any other state where she attempts to fill the void left by Mike Huckabee.

So while Pawlenty’s truth-teller spiel may sound corny to seasoned political observers, it may be that in throwing down the gauntlet on ethanol, he may have correctly estimated that even in Iowa the path to the nomination lies in appeasing anti-tax activists more than corn farmers.